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Technology-Obsessed Children Losing the Ability to Read Emotions

Aug 22, 2014 11:33 AM EDT
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In this technology-driven world where children are used to looking at screens more than actual people, they are losing the ability to read others' emotions, according to a new study.

Published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the research explains how children's social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction and more time for digital media.

"Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs," senior author of the study Patricia Greenfield, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College, said in a statement.

"Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues - losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people - is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills."

UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

The psychologists looked at two groups of sixth-graders: 51 who spent five days at a camp that didn't allow electronic devices, and 54 kids from the same school who did not attend the camp. The latter group reportedly texted, watched television and played video games for an average of four-and-a-half hours on a typical school day. Both groups of students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were happy, sad, angry or scared, and asked to identify their feelings.

Kids who attended the camp improved as time went on at recognizing others' emotions and detect nonverbal cues, whereas the other students who continued to use their technology did not show such an improvement.

"You can't learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication," explained lead author Yalda Uhls. "If you're not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills."

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